Getting in the Fashion Groove for Historical Fiction
By Anne Beggs
July 26, 2022

Clothes Make the man…and woman


Clothing and fashion are more than part of the setting. Fashion reveals much about the characters, their social status, their place and their personal tastes. Though I have never been a fashionista in my personal life, I enjoy researching medieval fashion, clothing, garments, shoes, buttons, belts and as much as I can find. I have books from the British Museum of History (before so much was online) for such titillating details.

Not only is the craft of making clothing important, but since ancient times, Sumptuary Laws have been in place. These laws limit prices on goods, levy fines or restrictions on imported goods, and of course, by legislating who can buy–thus wear what–everyone knows at a glance the social ranking and ethnicity of each other. I will share some links for more details on the laws.

The Church, too, had its reasons to try and control the people. Like the nobility, the Church needed to identify and classify everyone. The church certainly wanted to urge/coax/ demand people avoid the deadly sins of avarice, lust, self-indulgence/pride and jealously. In this author’s humble opinion, the less people spent on clothing, the more they could donate to the church vestments.

Back in my century(s) I am so very happy to be able to wear jeans and work shirts, and once upon a time, spaghetti strap summer dresses. But back to clothing, research, and storytelling.

Wool, linen (from flax) were accessible, but cotton and silk were also imported. Fur, hides, leather, and suede were well used. The colors and dyes were expensive. Blue, was very expensive, being made from lapis lazuli, a rare mineral from Afghanistan, and the color associated with the Virgin Mary in much art. Red coming from Kermes, the dried bodies of the females of a scale insect, primarily Kermes vermilio. Yellows could be gotten by boiling lichens. Below are some links if you wish further information. I didn’t share it here it – but google images of the kermes bug.

Women of every social strata were always spinning, making the vital thread for cloth and sewing. Spinning was so universal, the female side of the family was labeled the Distaff side, opposite the male, Spear side. A distaff makes a rather handy spear, a multipurpose tool. Noble women might not have made all their clothing, but they were embroidering and doing other needle and thread work.

Not to ignore the spears, for their garments are also described in my books. From the braises to the tunics, gambesons and surcoats. Then there would be armor—a blog of its own.

Eloise, my plucky protagonist, does not like to spin or sew—of course, what tension would there be if she just went along with the program? She wants to ride and shoot. In an early scene she is faced with the dilemma of having to tear out and redo a poorly done seam-drudgery. It is in fact, a front, straight seam like the one I am wearing. A meandering, uneven seam would reflect poorly on her skills and her family.

Not only do I research clothing, I have also gotten medieval garments, chemises, surcoats and cloaks. Though I know a few re-enactors who make their clothing from the sheep to their own backs, I chose to order mine from Arm Street ( **)  and other vendors. (I draw the line at wool. Can’t stand it against my skin, even with a chemise between us. Wool makes my skin itch and crawl, despite my heritage).

How does it feel to slip into a linen chemise? Well, the linen itself is lovely, but the looseness would take getting used to. To tie the sleeve tight at the wrist to go about your work?  Tedious to do yourself. Then the surcoat over that. Let us not forget tripping over the long hems. I wonder at the artwork depicting gowns that had inches of extra material bunched up at the feet. That MUST be a stylized image indicating the wealth and importance of the wearer as if they NEVER moved, worked or even went to the garderobe. The vital girdle (belt) not only kept the loose chemise, surcoat or tunic tight fitting, but before pockets were invented, so many things hung on that girdle. Keys, cup, purse, eating knife (no forks yet). It is fun to go to Renne Faires or Medieval gatherings and entertain the fantasy or fetish of the garments and environment.  

It was experiential to go about my day dressed as my characters. And the looks I got when I opened my door to the neighbors or delivery man. No, I’m not going to a costume ball and no, you are correct, it isn’t Halloween (tho in Santa Cruz County, every day may just be Halloween). 

Thank you for sharing your time and reading another blog and more of my writing, Medieval fetish and fascination.

**Arm Street is in Ukraine, please check out their website for more about them and how you can help.

Anne Beggs
Written by Anne Beggs

Anne M. Beggs writes adventure romance and family saga set in Medieval Ireland. She is a member of Paper Lantern Writers and Historical Novel Society. For about her books, mounted archery, and horses, please contact her on Facebook or Instagram @annitbella72

View Anne’s PLW Profile

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